PRINT April 2010


Thomas Hoving

THOMAS HOVING’S DOUBLE LIFE, as art historian and arts administrator, was in both its dimensions driven by much the same set of obsessions—a passion for beauty in its most flamboyant artistic embodiments, and an insatiable lust for the publicity that went with celebrity. These qualities prompted a number of decisions that laid the groundwork of the museum as we know it today. And this was perhaps the true crowning achievement of his famous tenure as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, from March 1967 until June 1977.

The history of Hoving’s acquisitions for the institution, beginning with the magnificent Bury Saint Edmunds cross—an intricate carving in the medium of walrus ivory, which he chased down and purchased for the Cloisters—led to his appointment as curator of the department of medieval art at the Met in 1965; and the program of spectacular exhibitions that he designed or endorsed as the museum’s director provided him with an outlet for the P. T. Barnum side of his personality. In a brief interval between the two appointments, Hoving served as New York City parks commissioner in the Lindsay administration—a period he describes in his 1994 memoir, Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as “a joyful revolution,” during which his thirst for publicity surfaced. (It made him, he writes, “Clown Prince of Fun City.”) No more powerful evidence for the boast can be imagined than the 1967 New Yorker cartoon by Charles Martin, representing the museum’s façade as gaudily decorated as a circus tent, with a banner reading “Welcome Mr. Hoving” fluttering over Fifth Avenue, which was depicted as a thronged street fair with a rock band and hot dog and pretzel stands. His middle initials, P. F., were said to be short for “Publicity Forever.”

This capsule biography somewhat overlooks the historical context of institutional contestation that defined the 1960s as a period in which revolution was widely invoked and the politics of demonstration shook the foundations of authority throughout the culture. To be sure, the paradigmatic year was 1968. But while the decade ended with women, blacks, and gays demanding power and acknowledgment, the currents of change had run strong from its beginning, with the nascent sexual revolution and antiwar movement creating generational tensions and affecting institutions initially thought to be above the fray. It says something about the forces afoot that the Met should have entrusted its stewardship to someone as spirited and youthful as Hoving—he was thirty-six when he was appointed director—even granting his scholarly zeal and the credentials that came from wealth and social standing (his father was Walter Hoving, chairman of Tiffany & Co.). So when he was asked in his meeting with the search committee where the museum “ought to be going next,” the trustees should not have been too surprised at his call for change, which he records in his memoir: “The museum needs reform. Sprucing up. Dynamics. Electricity. The place is moribund. Gray. It’s dying. The morale of the staff is low. The energy seems to have vanished. . . . The Met seems to me like a great ocean liner, engines off, wallowing in a dead calm, moving only because of the swell.” Hoving also told the trustees that the museum “needed to be made popular, to communicate the grandeur of the fifty centuries of art the Met possessed.”

He made it his mission to bring the Met into the twentieth century, though a large part of his vision would not have surprised J. P. Morgan. It was indeed articulated by Adam Verver, the central character in Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, published in 1904. In the novel, Verver is a retired manufacturer, widowed and living abroad with his daughter, Maggie, and devoting himself to aesthetic philanthropy, collecting works of art to stock a “museum of museums, a palace of art” in American City, which had given him his wealth. His plan is to construct a “house on a rock . . . designed as a gift, primarily, to the people of his adoptive city and native State, the urgency of whose release from the bondage of ugliness he was in a position to measure.”

In this spirit, over his career Hoving acquired a brilliant early Monet, Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, 1867; Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja, 1650; a krater by the great Greek vase painter Euphronios; a collection of Chinese masterpieces assembled by the scholar C. C. Wang; the Lehman collection of old masters and rare drawings; a whole house by Frank Lloyd Wright; and the Temple of Dendur from Egypt, to cite some of the main trophies whose acquisitions he entertainingly narrates in his memoir. He recalls shouting at one of his many critics, “I began as a collector and my instincts are all there. When I see something I want, I do everything I can to get it. I’ve gotten three hundred million dollars’ worth of stuff since I’ve been here, and I’ve never made a mistake.”

Hoving’s tenure as museum director carried the spirit of frolic into his exhibition schedule. For his kick-off exhibition in 1967, “In the Presence of Kings,” he transformed the “Welcome Mr. Hoving” banner of the New Yorker cartoon into a celebratory royal purple banner to hang in front of the museum advertising the display of royal objects within. This became standard practice in museums everywhere. The attendance at the opening was more than twice that of previous openings, and the Times review was “glowing.” The exhibition defined what Hoving had meant by “popular”: He meant taking what appealed to the populace and bringing it into the museum. (And this was not necessarily Pop art, though Hoving found a way of exhibiting James Rosenquist’s F-111, 1964–65—which did not prove popular, with either the populace or the critics—and expressed an anticipatory interest in the Scull collection of Pop, which hardly met Ververian criteria.) But his great exhibitions were of frescoes, tapestries, Scythian gold from the Soviet Union, and the “ultimate blockbuster” and “the high point of [Hoving’s] Metropolitan career,” the King Tut show. Then there was “Harlem on My Mind,” with its great photographic murals, its music, its incendiary catalogue, and, notably, the absence of any paintings at all by black artists, which made Harlem’s artists feel that their work was not considered good enough by Met curators to be hung in an exhibition about their own neighborhood.

Glum about the Met’s architecture, Hoving did what he could, but fortunately was unable to replace the grand staircase with escalators and banks of elevators. Even so, Hoving concluded his memoir by writing, “The most sweeping revolution in the history of art museums had taken place. . . . The Met, once an elitist, stiff, gray, and slightly moribund entity, came alive.” Surely the revolution consisted in realizing Adam Verver’s dream of making art part of the lives of ordinary Americans rather than of those who could afford to travel, even if the mission of art did not always consist in making beauty available in ugly American cities, as Verver and Hoving believed it would do. Hoving’s conception of experiencing art entailed having a sort of aesthetic rush: “The rush that comes to the experienced art watcher in the first thousandth of a second. The fleeter, the better.” When he first experienced Juan de Pareja, he had a spotlight prepared, sat down before the canvas, and said, “Hit me,” turning to stare hard at the painting just as it was illuminated. When he first saw the Euphronios krater, “[I] felt as if I had been punched in the stomach.” He wrote in a book review that the “instant impression [is] always best when it comes to art.” One wonders whether he would have authorized the purchase of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child, which his successor, Philippe de Montebello, acquired for a sum rumored to be in excess of forty-five million dollars. But in addition to the excitement of his acquisitions and exhibitions, he created the paradigm of the contemporary museum, with its gift shop, its educational responsibilities, its gala social functions, and its attractive places to eat and drink. From the beginning, the publicity that has to account for the throngs that came to fill the Met’s galleries rubbed Hoving’s critics the wrong way. My sense is that they really deplored the throngs.

But apart from the blockbusters, there was always a certain tranquility. David Reed, David Carrier, and I once stood before Guercino’s Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619, for over an hour, trying to get clear on what held it together, without anyone walking through the gallery. On the other hand, it didn’t kick us in the stomach, which admittedly happens now and then, but not frequently enough to enfranchise most of the museum’s holdings. The Bury Saint Edmunds cross is a candidate for a stomach kicker, and Hoving presented it that way to the acquisitions committee, feeling that the museum had to have it, keeping mum about its vicious anti-Semitic inscriptions until he felt obliged to write a second version of his 1981 book, King of the Confessors, to tell the sickening truth. The Cloisters did not mention the anti-Semitism in its official publication on its treasure. Art sometimes cannot pass the tests of close reading. Hoving wrote, “The inscriptions are so hate-filled and yet it’s such a masterwork. It’s as if Hitler and Michelangelo collaborated to make a masterpiece.” Lucky for beauty that few are able to penetrate what Edward Gibbon spoke of as “the decent obscurity of a learned language.” A work like the Bury Saint Edmunds cross raises some of the hardest questions about art that there are, but how ready are we to face them? I think it is to Hoving’s immense credit that he realized that the time to confront them had not yet come.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.